Amazon Watch on the Growing Edge in Environmental Activism

Amazon Watch On the Growing Edge in Environmental Activism

Amazon Watch On the Growing Edge in Environmental Activism

By Hank Edson

The Gaia hypothesis posits that our planetary environment, the Earth, functions as a self-regulating whole with a dizzying array of complex systems for maintaining its biological wellbeing, its life.  For many, the Gaia hypothesis is deeper and yet simpler: the Earth is a being with a soul.  No matter how you view our planet, the point is that we are, as a society, becoming increasingly aware of new and previously unsuspected dimensions of interconnectedness. This is our growing edge, the next step in human development: understanding, embracing, and fostering health and harmony in every fiber of the web of life.

Over the last three decades, one example of the Earth’s capacity to self-regulate its health and wellbeing has attracted Bay Area activists’ attention more than any other: the Amazon rainforest.  Nicknamed the “lungs of the Earth,” the dense forest vegetation of the Amazon is estimated to breathe out a staggering one-fifth of the planet’s oxygen.  Here by the Bay, a network of gutsy non-profit organizations including the Pachamama Alliance, Rainforest Action Network, Global Exchange, and Amazon Watch, have a proud history of collaborative action dedicated to restoring and preserving Mother Gaia’s precious lung capacity. 

In a concerted effort to achieve global coexistence between the environment and modern society, organizations find new and dramatic ways of directing public attention to the values, lives, and future at risk.  For example, you may remember two years ago seeing Amazon Watch and Rainforest Action Network activists dangling from a wall-size banner hanging off the Richmond/San Rafael Bridge.  The banner captured widespread local and national news coverage during Chevron’s annual shareholder meeting. The action brought the spotlight on the $19 billion guilty verdict handed down against Chevron, who happens to be a Bay Area neighbor, for its gross negligence in polluting a massive portion of Ecuadorian rainforest, home to between 20,000 and 40,000 people.  At the same time, inside the meeting, shareholders sympathetic to the protests were urging a resolution aimed at driving the company to adopt a more responsible approach to the judgment. 

The sophisticated coordination of shareholder activism, public protest, and a multi-dimensional communications strategy is a hallmark of the Bay Area’s record of success in helping defend a planet under attack.  Among this group, some of the most interesting and important work is being done by Amazon Watch, which  focuseson partnering with and empowering the indigenous peoples who have proven themselves the best guardians of complex rainforest ecosystems both in modern times and since millennia.

Look down on the Amazon from a satellite today and the areas of the rainforest that remain the dark green of dense old growth forest will largely overlap with a map of territories designated as indigenous land reserves.  Fortunately, indigenous-held territories comprise more than a quarter of the Amazon basin, which means that all this land is in the hands of environmentally competent stewards. Unfortunately, much of the land outside these indigenous territories is reflected as a checkerboard of brown deforestation—the shocking signature of the destructive pressures of the outside industrialized world economy.

As a conduit for bringing the global village of humanity into responsible partnership with these indigenous preservationists, Amazon Watchhas been effective creating a two-way planetary circulatory system that has helped build capacity and mobilize communities around the world. 

In one direction, these activists transport indigenous leaders to the most prominent political, commercial, and public stages of the developed world to advocate for ecologically and financially sound rainforest policies.  In the other direction, campaigners have hiked and paddled their way into remote indigenous communities all over the Amazon to bring modern organizational, communications, legal, and technical expertise to nature-based cultures that have never before needed to confront the outside world, let alone guide it to behave responsibly.

Multi-lingual, back-country traveling, politically savvy, technologically astute humanists, these Bay Area activists are a dynamic breed—part creative visionary, part seasoned militant, and part global adventurer.  But theirs is not just one of making electronic explanations on You Tube or via mass email petitions.   Low paid, but committed staffers and volunteers regularly travel in the rainforest, building relationships with indigenous communities, helping develop new skills and strategies, offering practical experience along with an upbeat, grounded presence. 

For example, sitting around the Amazon Watch lunch table on any given day is a revelation.  One woman remembers contracting Swine Flu in Rwanda and being kept quarantined in a hut with a machine gun toting guard at the door.  Another tells a self-deprecating story about stumbling on a spine-covered log in Peru and having to lie on the mud floor of a hut for several painful hours while a native friend patiently removed each spine individually.  When I ask another about the dangers he faced helping Chiapas communities, he replies, “Yes, I got in a little over my head,” but then diverts my attention toward a fourth who was banned from China for being a pro-Tibet supporter.

This is the kind of flint that is required in the day-to-day David and Goliath confrontations that occur all across the planet as non profits challenge the vested interests of global plunderers. And even though activists have had unprecedented success holding Chevron accountable for its environmental atrocities and gross disregard for human life, the oil giant scoffs. Despite its well honed public relations and advertising campaigns, the company shows its true colors when it deploys its enormous wealth to advantage. The company has employed 2,000 attorneys and 60 law firms, spending nearly two billion dollars subverting justice systems and defending its conduct in Ecuador. 

This year alone, Chevron has so far spent $400,000 in efforts to evade the judgment handed down against it.  Meanwhile a report by a prominent statistician estimates that approximately 10,000 Ecuadorians will contract cancer if the toxic sludge the company is responsible for having released into Ecuador’s rainforest is not immediately cleaned up.  One Chevron attorney has been quoted saying they will fight the judgment “until hell freezes over, and then skate it out on the ice.” 

Fortunately, the Amazon Defense Coalition has brought asset seizure actions in Argentina, Canada, Brazil and Ecuador in a bid to enforce the judgment against oil giant’s will. In the first action in Argentina, these efforts succeeded in getting the court to freeze Chevron’s approximately two billion dollars in assets there.

Alas, Chevron is not the only threat to the rainforest.  Of enormous concern is the construction of the Belo Monte dam complex in Brazil. Slated to flood 40,000 hectares of Amazon rainforest and become the world’s third largest hydro-electric complex, this series of dams on the Xingu River would divert 80% of the river’s flow, cause a devastating loss of biodiversity, and forcibly displace 20,000 to 40,000 people without consulting any of the affected indigenous peoples. At the same time, the project would cause the release of huge quantities of methane into the atmosphere as a result of the fermentation of forest rotting under water. 

For conservationists, the challenge is how to foster a political environment where indigenous rights are respected, where the value of the ecosystem is appreciated, where the real toll on the environment resulting from what many perceive as “clean” hydro-electric energy is understood, and where Brazil’s need for a comprehensive, rational energy policy can be met.

As usual, Amazon Watch and its partners are active on all fronts trying to cultivate just the right conditions that will motivate Brazil’s President Rouseff to pursue sustainable alternative energy policies that will not require the sacrifice of such a vital river ecosystem. Protestors campaign on the ground outside the city of Altamira, helping local activists occupy the construction site while also working with the media to publicize this alarming situation.

At the same time, the Amazon Watch is fully engaged in meeting another equally challenging and urgent threat.  Despite a record of being a leader in ecologically responsible stewardship and respect for indigenous rights, the Ecuadoran government announced its intention to hold what it calls the “11th Round” oil auction, putting 16 oil blocks up for sale.  These oil blocks extend across nearly 8 million acres, a third of Ecuador’s intact primary rainforest and include the ancestral homelands of seven indigenous nationalities.

Despite the government’s awareness of the ruinous effects caused by Chevron’s abuses, it claims that the underground resource rights are legal to sell though the surface rights belong to indigenous communities. The tragedy is that while the road construction alone required for development of these oil reserves would destroy 457,700 acres of rainforest, the proposed auction would only extend Ecuador’s limited remaining oil exports by a mere couple of years--drop in the bucket in the context of global oil consumption. In exchange for this limited pay off, a scientifically recognized biodiversity “hot spot” is at risk.

Thankfully, Amazon Watch has been helping indigenous communities resist the Ecuador’s effort to develop on their homelands for over a decade.  By making  other oil companies aware of the perils of developing such resources against the wishes of the affected communities,  ARCO, ConocoPhillips, Burlington Resources, and CGC (Compania General de Combustibles) all have been forced to withdraw from the 11th Round.  This has been a provisional win for the planet, but the proverbial wolves are merely at bay.

The persistent Ecuadorian government has apparently pieced a deal with the cash rich and oil thirsty Chinese interests. The proposed arrangement would exchange 11th Round oil rights for Chinese financing would help develop separate national  projects. That’s why wherever 11th Round oil rights auction are being promoted, Amazon Watch and its indigenous partners are there educating the public about the devastating costs and injustices that will flow from development of these resources.  

Whether it’s Chevron’s evasion of justice, or Brazil’s plans to build the Belo Monte dam complex, or the Ecuadorian’s11th Round oil rights fiasco, all three of these David and Goliath conflicts demonstrate that an unwavering global determination is required to preserve the lungs of the Earth.  In keeping with the Gaia Hypothesis and our responsibility to evolve in keeping with the soul of the planet, an increased vigilance—on a daily basis--is new imperative.

Bay Area activists such as Amazon Watch, Pachamama Alliance, Global Exchange and Rainforest Action Network as well as others are on the case—it is a source of Bay Pride—but these organizations need your support. Though congested and coughing, Mother Gaia is loudly proclaiming herself via the flora, the fauna and via the actions of determined conservationists. “Help me” she gasps; Gaia seeks allies.

A version of this article first appeared in the magazine, Common Ground.